Student Movements Essay

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Student movements have emerged in many modern and modernizing societies. Increasing student numbers provide the necessary critical mass for movements, but political conditions provide the most general reasons for their development.

In the 1960s student movements spread in opposition to the Vietnam War and, in France in May 1968, threatened revolution. They inspired women’s, personal liberation and environmental movements, developed ”movement entrepreneurs,” and contributed to the legitimation of protest and the ”participatory revolution” in liberal democracies.

The 1960s student movements arose out of an extraordinary conjunction of demography and social change, sustained rises in living standards, expansion of higher education in response to changes in technology and occupational structures, and an effective vacuum of political opposition. Universities had expanded, but graduate unemployment was negligible and students’ complaints were not primarily self-interested.

Are student movements likely to reappear? The status of ”student” has become less determinate as students are increasingly integrated into the social and economic mainstream, and distinctively student politics more closely resemble the politics of other sectional interests.

Student movements have continued to play important roles in authoritarian states, keeping alive democratic aspirations and contributing to the collapse of regimes. From Spain to Thailand to Taiwan, they provoked political crises that expanded civil liberties and democratic rights. Student protests against more systematically repressive regimes have been aggressively suppressed, as in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It was generally students who first challenged oppressive regimes in the name of universalist principles of liberty, morality and democracy. The critical conditions for the emergence and development of student movements are a moralistic political grievance and absence within the polity of effective opposition from more powerful actors.


  1. Burg, D. E. (1998) Encyclopedia of Student and Youth Movements. Facts on File, New York.
  2. Rootes, C. (1980) Student radicalism: politics of moral protest and legitimation problems of the modern capitalist state. Theory and Society 9 (3): 473-502.

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